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Colloquium - Bennett

Lego Robots: Experience Teaching Engineering Design to Majors and Non-Majors
Rice University

This talk will describe our experience teaching an introductory course in engineering design over the past five years. The course is somewhat unusual in that it has no prerequisites, and is intended for both engineering majors and non-majors. ENGI 201, Introduction to Engineering Design (or "Lego Robots", as students have named it) was designed to address what were perceived to be two problems with our undergraduate curriculum.

The first problem was that prospective engineering majors face two years of math, chemistry, physics and other engineering fundamentals before they ever get to do any engineering. While these fundamentals are important, they do not fairly represent what the practice of engineering is all about. In nearly every other area of study that we offer, students are able to get the "feel" of their chosen major early in their undergraduate career. The absence of this opportunity is perhaps one reason for the attrition among freshmen and sophomore engineering students.

The second issue that ENGI 201 was designed to address is that there are very few opportunities for non-engineers to experience anything related to the practice of engineering. A prerequisite structure that is daunting to a freshman engineer is intimidating and unreasonable for most liberal arts majors. For this reason, the term "Engineering Distribution Course" is almost an oxymoron.

The challenge in creating a course like ENGI 201 was to make a significant body of technical material accessible, without requiring students to master what have traditionally been considered the core engineering prerequisites. Our approach to this issue was to make the course a hands-on introduction to engineering design, where students learn engineering by practicing engineering. In the process of designing, constructing, and programming a simple robot assembled from "LEGO" building blocks, surplus motors and sensors, and a printed circuit computer board that the students solder together, the students are exposed to issues that confront every practicing engineer. These include working with available technology, design team interaction, design tradeoffs in electro-mechanical systems, iterative design, the value of prototyping, and scheduling constraints. The hands-on aspect of the course is intended to make the underlying technical issues more accessible. Additional motivation is provided by scheduling a contest at the end of the semester, where each design team fields an autonomous robot that competes against other robots in a tournament.

A short video that chronicles students' experience in the course will be shown during the talk.

Bennett is a candidate for a faculty position in the Department.

Department of Computer Science
University of Colorado Boulder
Boulder, CO 80309-0430 USA
May 5, 2012 (14:13)